In this great speech in history, CHARLES JAMES FOX gives one of his best speeches with regards to the ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of the press’.
CHARLES JAMES FOX: Our government is valuable, because it is free. What, I beg gentlemen to ask themselves, are the fundamental parts of a free government? I know there is a difference of opinion upon this subject. My own opinion is, that freedom does not depend upon the executive government, nor upon the administration of justice, nor upon any one particular or distinct part, nor even upon forms so much as it does on the general freedom of speech and of writing. With regard to freedom of speech, the bill before the House is a direct attack upon that freedom. no man dreads the use of a universal proposition more than I do myself. I must nevertheless say, that speech ought to be completely free, without any restraint whatever, in any government pretending to be free. By being completely free, I do not mean that a person should not be liable to punishment for abusing that freedom, but I mean freedom in the first instance. The press is so at present, and I rejoice it is so; what I mean is, that any man may write and print what he pleases, although he is liable to be punished, if he abuses that freedom; this I call perfect freedom in the first instance. If this is necessary with regard to the press, it is still more so with regard to speech. An imprimatur has been talked of, and it will be dreadful enough; but a dictator will be still more horrible. No man has been daring enough to say, that the press should not be free: but the bill before them does not, indeed, punish a man for speaking, it prevents him from speaking. For my own part, I never heard of any danger arising to a free state from the freedom of the press, or freedom of speech; so far from it, I am perfectly clear that a free state cannot exist without both. The honourable and learned gentleman has said, will we not preserve the remainder by giving up this liberty? I admit that, by passing of the bill, the people will have lost a great deal.
A great deal! Aye,all that is worth preserving. For you will have lost the spirit, the fire, the freedom, the boldness, the energy of the British character, and with them its best virtue. I say, it is not the written law of the constitution of England, it is not the law that is to be found in books, that has constituted the true principle of freedom in any country, at any time. no! it is the energy, the boldness of a man’s mind, which prompts him to speak, not in private, but in large and popular assemblies, that constitutes, that creates, in a state, the spirit of freedom. This is the principle that gives life to freedom; without, the human character is a stranger to freedom. If you suffer the liberty of speech to be wrested from you, you will then have lost the freedom, the energy, the boldness of the British character. It has been said, that the right honourable gentleman rose to his present eminence by the influence of the popular favour, and that he is now kicking away the ladder by which he mounted to power. Whether such was the mode by which the right honourable gentleman attained his present situation I am a little inclined to question; but I can have no doubt that if the bill shall pass, England herself will have thrown away the ladder, by which she as risen to wealth (but that is the last consideration), to honour, to happiness, and to fame. Along with enrgy of thinking and liberty of speech, she will forfeit the comforts of her situation, and the dignity of her character, those blessings which they have secured to her at home, and the rank by which she has been distinguished among the nations. These were the sources of her splendour, and the foundation of her greatness–
…Sic fortis Etruria crevit,
Scilicet et rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma.
(translation: ‘Thus Etruria grew strong, and Rome became the most glorious thing on earth’)
We need only appeal to the example of that great city whose prosperity the poet has thus recorded. in Rome, when the liberty of speech was gone, along with it vanished all that had constituted her the mistress of the world. I doubt not but in the days of Augustus that were persons who perceived no symptoms of decay, who exulted even in their fancied prosperity, when they contemplated the increasing opulence and splendid edifices of that grand metropolis, and who even deemed that they possessed their ancient liberty, because they still retained those titles of offices which had existed under the republic. What fine panegyrics were then pronounced on the prosperity of the empire! –Tum tutus bos prata perambulat.
(translation: ‘For safe the herds range field and fen’)
This was flattery to Augustus: to that great destroyer of the liberties of mankind, as much and enemy of freedom, as any of the detestable tyrants who succeeded him. So with us, we are to be flattered with an account of the form of our government, by King, Lords, and Commons – Eadem magistratum vocabula.
(translation: ‘At home all was quiet; the titles of the magistrates were unchanged.’)
There were some then, as there are now, who said that the energy of Rome was not gone; while they felt their vanity gratified in viewing their city; which had been converted from brick into marble. They did not reflect that they had lost that spirit of manly independence which animated the Romans of better times, and that the beauty and splendour of their city served only to conceal the symptoms of rottenness and decay. So if this bill passes you may for a time retain your institution of juries and the forms of your free Constitution, but the substance is gone, the foundation is undermined; –your fall is certain and your destruction inevitable. As a tree that is injured at the root and the bark taken off, the branches may live for a while, some sort of blossom may still remain; but it will soon wither, decay, and perish: so take away the freedom of speech or of writing, and the foundation of all your freedom is gone. You will then fall, and be degraded and despised by all the world for your weakness and your folly, in not taking care of that which conducted you to all your fame, your greatness, your opulence, and prosperity. but before this happens, let the people once more be tried. I am a friend to taking the sense of the people, and therefore a friend to this motion. i wish for every delay that is possible in this important and alarming business. I wish for this adjournment – Spatium requiemque furori.
(translation: ‘My prayer is for a transient grace, to give this madness breathing space.’)
Let us put a stop to the madness of this bill; for if you pass it, you will take away the foundation of the liberty of the people of England, and then farewell to any happiness in this country!